Creationist Arguments:
The Lost Peking Man Skeletons

The initial reports of 10 skeletons
Where did the reports come from?
Bowden's explanation
The conspiracy of silence

Creationist author Malcolm Bowden (1981) discusses a curious episode in the history of Peking Man, and argues that scientists committed a colossal fraud by hiding the existence of ten skeletons.

The initial reports

In the middle of December 1929, some newspapers reported that ten skeletons had been discovered at the Peking Man site of Chou Kou Tien (now Zhoukoudian) in China. The Daily Telegraph of London (Dec 16 1929, p.11) and the New York Times both published lengthy articles about the supposed discovery. (I have not yet been able to obtain the Daily Telegraph article.)

According to the New York Times of Dec. 16, 1929,

"The discovery in a cave near Peking of the fossilized bones of ten men, who possibly lived 1,000,000 years ago, as reported by scientists representing the Rockefeller Foundation and the Geological Survey of China, is held here to excel in interest all previous findings of this kind.
Of paramount importance is the discovery of a perfect skull, now in the possession of Dr. Davidson Black, a Canadian paleontologist, which, it is asserted, bears characteristics showing that even at the beginning of the ice age there existed men with the power of thinking and who, unlike the "ape men," walked erect.
From the fact that the ten skeletons lay huddled together in the cave, found in a field at Chou Outien [sic], thirty miles from Peking, the scientists hold that they led a community life." (Anon. 1929a)

Further on, the NYT article refers to "ten skeletons unearthed simultaneously with an unbroken skull", and says that "Nine of the skeletons were headless".

The prominent journal Nature (Anon. 1929b) made similar but more modest claims, referring only to "the fossilized fragments of ten more examples of Sinanthropus", and "remains of ten individuals".

On December 28th 1929 [1], a conference was held at the offices of the Geological Survey of China. There were no skeletons, let alone ten of them. What was shown to the audience of scientists and journalists was a partial skull, consisting of most of the braincase but almost none of the face, that had been found at Zhoukoudian on December 2nd by W. C. Pei, the young Chinese scientist in charge of excavation at the site. Even this find was enough to make news around the world.

Where did the reports of 10 skeletons come from?

Although at least two newspapers published accounts of the "ten skeletons", they were not independent accounts. Both of these articles, and the Nature article, seem to have been based on the same source, a cable which according to Nature (Anon. 1929b) was sent on Dec 15th, presumably from Peking to London. It does not seem to be known, however, who sent the cable, what its contents were, or to whom it was sent. There appear to be no other contemporary, primary sources which claim that ten skeletons existed.

Importantly, because the text of the cable is now unknown, we do not even know whether it actually claimed that ten skeletons existed, so in fact there are no reliable sources documenting the existence of the skeletons. The contents of the Nature article suggest that the cable did not explicitly say ten skeletons had been discovered, because Nature referred only to "fossilised fragments" and "remains", of unspecified completeness, of ten individuals. It seems more likely that the cable made a similar claim, and that the newspapers misinterpreted it to mean that ten complete skeletons had been found, than that the cable referred to ten skeletons and Nature chose to downplay them by describing them merely as fragments. (As many scientists will testify, newspapers have a habit of sensationalizing science stories and getting the details wrong.)

In addition, the description of the ten skeletons did not seem plausible to many of the scientists asked to comment on the reports. The NYT said:

"Sir Arthur [Keith, of England] smiled a little incredulously when told that the remains of ten men had been discovered.
'Discoveries are not made in this way,' he said."

In another NYT article the following day, American scientist Walter Granger expressed some caution about the reported finds, saying that "If the reports are true, ..." (Anon. 1929c). Another New York Times article on Dec 18th expressed stronger doubts from Ales Hrdlicka, America's premier physical anthropologist. According to the NYT, several scientists had ventured that, because of the number of skeletons supposedly found and the fact that nine of them were headless, "the cases do not have the earmarks of ancient discoveries" (Anon. 1929d).

Finally, there is other evidence that no skeletons existed. Soon after the braincase was discovered on December 2nd but apparently before the December 15th cable was sent, Davidson Black wrote a letter to Grafton Elliot Smith in England. The part of the letter describing the discovery of the braincase is quoted in Jia and Huang (1990). In it, Black excitedly talks about the discovery of the "greater part of an uncrushed adult Sinanthropus skull!", but there is no mention of any skeletal material, as there surely would have been had a find as significant as ten skeletons been made. We can be fairly sure this letter was written before December 15, because according to Jia and Huang, Black lost no time in sending it after receiving the skullcap, and in his letter, Black says that he intends to send cables announcing the good news. Jia and Huang also mention the cable sent by Pei to Black, telling him about the discovery of the skullcap: "Found skullcap - perfect - look[s] like man's."

The lack of skeletons is confirmed by an account from Roy Chapman Andrews, the American explorer who led expeditions into the Gobi Desert of Mongolia. According to Andrews, at a social function in "early December [1929]", Black said to him "Roy, we've got a skull. Pei found it on December 2." (Andrews 1945). Andrews returned to Black's laboratory and examined the specimen, but made no mention of any skeletal remains.

Bowden's explanation

Bowden's explanation of the non-appearance of the ten skeletons after they had been reported is that they really existed, but were suppressed by the scientific establishment because they did not provide the hoped-for evidence of human evolution:

"What could have bought about this disappearing act? It seems to me that the experts, ever keen to publicize their discoveries, appear to have despatched a hurried cable to the world's newspapers. Closer inspection, however, probably showed that the skeletons were far too human for a claim to be made that they were halfway between man and ape. It may therefore have been decided to ignore them completely, and to publicize only the ape skull which Pei is said to have discovered in the lower 'cave'." (Bowden 1981)

Instead of showing that the skeletons actually did exist, Bowden begs the question by assuming it. His explanation is incredible for many reasons. First, it requires that all of the scientists involved were willing to commit a major fraud, destroy fossils, and lie about it. This list would include Black, the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, the Chinese excavator W. C. Pei, and the many other Chinese scientists involved with the site.

Second, as described in Jia and Huang (1990), the excavation, transport, and preparation of the skullcap alone involved a significant amount of effort, and even by the end of December, it was still partly embedded in hard rock. It seems unlikely that such a large body of material as ten skeletons could be excavated and sufficiently analyzed in the space of only three weeks to determine that they were too human to be evidence of evolution.

Third, even if they could be so analyzed, it is almost inconceivable that any, let alone all, of the scientists involved would have willingly destroyed them. No matter what the skeletons belonged to, a discovery of such spectacular size and completeness would have made the career of any scientist involved with them.

Fourth, Zhoukoudian was a large site with dozens of workers, many of whom would have had to be involved in the extraction of the skeletons, and all of whom would have been at least aware of such a major discovery at the site. Suppressing knowledge of the existence of the skeletons would be impossible when so many people knew of them.

Finally, there is no mention of any skeletal material in the letter sent by Davidson Black to Elliot Smith, which was apparently written before it was supposedly decided to do away with the skeletons, or in Roy Andrews’ book.

The evidence is far too weak to support Bowden's dramatic conclusion of widespread fraud and conspiracy. There is much evidence arguing against this supposed conspiracy. The only evidence for it is the claimed existence of the ten skeletons, and, as discussed above, the evidence for this is itself very slender. Instead of attempting to prove that the skeletons existed, Bowden has assumed it.

The conspiracy of silence

Bowden also questions why, after the December 28 conference in which one skull was presented instead of the reported ten skeletons, no one asked what had happened to them:

"What actually happened?
Nothing whatsoever -- absolute silence!
These skeletons are simply not referred to in any report, periodical or reference book dealing with Pekin Man! It is as if these headlines had never existed."

Later he says:

"This strange incident does raise one question. Why has no 'scientist', author or journalist of integrity ever referred to these reports of ten skeletons and questioned what happened to them?" (Bowden 1981)

These statements are incorrect. It turns out that at least two scientists addressed the rumors about the ten skeletons. Moreover, they did so in a source that Bowden references in his discussion of the ten skeletons, an article written by French scientist Marcellin Boule for the journal L'Anthropologie (Boule 1929). Boule says:

"Between then and now, excavations continued at Choukoutien with such success that, around the middle of December 1929, the English newspapers made a big noise of the new finds, while moreover reporting them inaccurately and exaggerating them. Thus the Daily Telegraph of December 10 1929 [sic; should be Dec 16], for example, announced the "discovery of ten petrified skeletons dating back to a million years and representing the ancestors of the human species. The newspaper then gave interviews with diverse scientific notables of London, notably [Sir Grafton] Elliot Smith. After having declared that the discovery from Peking was the most important to this day in human paleontology, the English scientist added: ..." [2] (Boule 1929, p.456, my translation)

Later in the same article, Boule refers to a letter he received from Teilhard de Chardin which gave details on the new discovery:

"And, some days after [receiving a cable on Dec 28, 1929], I indeed received by post, from my scientific collaborator and friend M. Teilhard de Chardin, some precise details on the new finds. Unfortunately it was not about ten skeletons, but a cranial skullcap, moreover very interesting, as we are going to see: ..."[3] (Boule 1929, p.456, my translation)

It turns out that Teilhard's letter, partially reproduced in Boule's article, is also important because it suggests a plausible source for the reports of the skeletons:

"My impression is that the fissure containing Sinanthropus (Black estimates that there are traces of at least 10 individuals) is, ..." [4] (Teilhard de Chardin, quoted in Boule 1929, p.458, my translation)

It is not too difficult to imagine that a preliminary report saying something similar was misunderstood, or that the important qualifier "traces" was omitted as the report got passed along, and resulted in a reporter assuming that the ten individuals were actually ten skeletons.

Finally, Boule's article also contains some relevant information from Davidson Black. Black had sent Boule the text of a communique he had written for the press, which Boule reproduced in its entirety in the original English. In it, Black stated:

"Contrary to any reports wich [sic] have been circulated, no skeletal parts other than the skull and numerous isolated teeth have been recovered during this year's excavations." (Black, quoted in Boule 1929, p.458)

I do not know if this communique was ever published.


In summary,


1. This conference was to be on December 23rd, according to the Daily Telegraph, and on December 29th, according to Nature. However the date on which it actually occurred was December 28 (Jia and Huang 1990). Return to text

2. "Entre temps, les fouilles se poursuivaient à Chou-Kou-Tien et avec un succès tel que vers le milieu de décembre 1929, les journaux anglais faisaient grand bruit des nouvelles trouvailles, en les rapportant d'ailleurs infidèlement et en les amplifiant. C'est ainsi que le Daily Telegraph du 10 décembre 1929 [sic; should be Dec 16], par exemple, annoncait la "découverte de dix squelettes pétrifiés remontant à un million d'années et représantant les ancêtres de l'espèce humaine". Le journal donnait ensuite des interviews de diverses notabilités scientifique de Londres, notamment d'Elliot Smith. Après avoir déclaré que la découverte de Pékin était le plus important faite à ce jour in Paléontologie humaine, le savant anglais ajoutait: ..." Return to text

3. "Et, quelques jours après, je recevais, en effet, par la poste, de mon savant collaborateur et ami, M. Teilhard de Chardin, des détails précis sur les nouvelles trouvailles. Il ne s'agissait malheureusement pas de dix squelettes, mais d'une calotte cranienne, d'ailleurs très intéressante, comme on va le voir: ..." Return to text

4. "Mon impression est que la fissure à Sinanthropus (Black estime qu'on a les traces d'au moins dix individus) est, ..." Return to text


Anon. (1929a): 'Missing link' seen in find near Peking; scientists stirred. New York Times, (Dec 16 1929): 1,10.

Anon. (1929b): Pleistocene man in China. Nature, (Dec 28 1929) 124:973-4.

Anon. (1929c): Sees aid in fixing 'cradle of man'. New York Times, (Dec 17 1929): 31

Anon. (1929d): Thinks Peking bones may not be very old. New York Times, (Dec 18 1929): 21

Andrews R.C. (1945): Meet your ancestors. New York: Viking Press.

Boule M. (1929): Le Sinanthropus. L'Anthropologie, 39:455-60.

Bowden M. (1981): Ape-men: fact or fallacy? Ed. 2. Bromley,Kent: Sovereign.

Jia L. and Huang W. (1990): The story of Peking man. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.

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